Cable TV's network with a cause: Lifetime

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It was a Capitol Hill press conference. Hollywood stars Mira Sorvino and Donald Sutherland skipped the event, tied up in film shootings. But half a dozen congresswomen were there, discussing legislation to end sex trafficking and crediting a cable network for raising public awareness of the issue.

"Congress listens to constituents," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. "If our constituents start telling us look at this problem and we need to take care of it [because of Lifetime], congressmen will be much more interested in doing something about it."

Added Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, Lifetime's attention "is going to create a huge atmosphere and support among [its] viewers and that's a considerable number of people."

A number of cable networks use public service activities to cement ties to viewers, but women's network Lifetime has gone a step further: regularly bringing public service activism to the steps of Capitol Hill.

To be sure, the political agenda of the Hearst and ABC-owned network is largely uncontroversial. But its voice is being heard. Lifetime has advocated in Congress for more money for DNA testing of rape victims, legislation to make video voyeurism a federal crime and the recent legislation to combat sex trafficking.

"We have a really unique platform to speak for and to advocate for our viewers," said Meredith Wagner, Lifetime's exec VP-public affairs. Lifetime makes clear it is not lobbying, but pushing to spotlight women's issues. It does, however, have on staff political affairs heavy-hitters, including Toby Graff, VP-public affairs, who worked on health care policy in the Clinton White House; Mary Dixon, VP-public affairs, a specialist in women's issues and Eileen de Parrie, director-public affairs, who has a Congressional background.

Ms. Wagner concedes Lifetime is unlikely to get much publicity out of the activities, but says its involvement offers deeper benefits. "It has real-life impact on our viewers, and relative to [doing more] advertising, this is incredibly inexpensive," she said. "The cost is minuscule and a byproduct of this is that our research with viewers shows an incredibly deep and high level of loyalty. This matters to them."


Lifetime says its research shows 71% of its viewers cite the channel's commitment to women's issues as important to their viewing of the channel, and 85% say it affected their image of the channel.

Ms. Wagner says it translates to loyalty even though she admits that programming has a bigger impact. "First and foremost, people choose what they watch based on programming, but they trust our message and that impacts loyalty." She said it also influences where viewers look for their programming choices. "There are a lot of companies out there, putting pink ribbons out, but we have an amazing testament in letters and e-mails from our viewers ... amazing connections."

She says that Lifetime is also careful in picking issues that are not polarizing, like abortion. "We look at issues that unite women, not divide them. We tend to see issues that resonate the most."

Steve McMahon, a strategist for Howard Dean's campaign and a principal of McMahon Squier & Associates, said what the network is doing has parallels to what the Dean campaign did. "They are deepening the connection between the audience and vehicle, creating a sense of loyalty that is deeper," he said. "They are creating an affinity club for people who share a set of views, a set of values and common issue concerns. They are building an on-air community and using an issue-based platform and programming to do it. It's all about community building and making viewers feel a part of something larger than themselves or the television network they watch."

He added, "You are beginning to see companies understand that there's a difference between selling a product and building a community and that the benefits of community building transcend and endure well beyond the benefits of increased product sales alone."

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